If somebody invited you to dinner at “the bad house”, would you:
a) assume that the description referred to the food and make sure you eat at home before you go;
b) assume that it was some sort of dance club and pack your earplugs; or
c) assume you were going to a strip club (as in down, bad boy, down!)?
Luckily for me, none of the above turned out to be the case when Michelle invited me to join her for dinner at the Malmaison brasserie recently. Malmaison is a small chain of 12 exclusive hotels throughout the UK and although the name literally does mean bad or sick house in French, don’t worry – no lapdancing will spoil your dinner! The name is taken from Chateau Malmaison, a chateau in the suburbs of Paris famously purchased by Napoleon’s wife Josephine in 1799 which (together with the Tuileries) became the French government’s headquarters from 1800 to 1802. (And no, nobody knows why it was called that in the first place!). The Malmaison group of hotels opened for business in 1994 and London’s outpost is situated in a former nurse’s home on Charterhouse Square, one of those unexpected oases of cobbled calm in the middle of the City, a stone’s throw away from Smithfield meat market.
Upon entering, you can immediately see why this is much favoured by the booted & suited bankers and lawyers that work in the area – there is a distinctly louche yet blokey air to the place, with a large, sleek bar at one end of the dimly-lit room. It wasn’t very busy when we visited on a Saturday night in July (the City is always pretty deserted over weekends) but if the bar is packed it gets pretty noisy down there – aspiring romantic diners beware!
Fresh bread with tapenade and butter wrapped in branded Malmaison paper were a nice touch, but it was the cocktail list that excited us more. My raspberry collins was delightful – packed with fresh raspberry flavour and not too sweet. The compact menu mostly stays safely and firmly in French brasserie territory (smoked goose, boudin noir, chevre salad, onglet with frites) with an occasional foray into the rest of Europe (fritto misto, ravioli, risotto), plus some daily specials and a good value 3-course set menu. (There is also a burger which I subsequently have heard is The Thing to order at Malmaison…). The wine list is extensive and international, with a good selection by the glass.
My starter was seared scallops with couscous, which was both pretty to look at and delicious. The scallops were crispy perfection on the outside and barely cooked inside – just how I like them. The couscous was a great combination of flavours including raisins and nuts for textural crunch. Elsewhere at the table, my fellow-diners had foie gras and chicken liver parfait; smoked mackerel paté; and crispy squid with a smoky homemade ketchup. With the exception of the foie gras and chicken liver parfait (which was blamelessly inoffensive but also instantly forgettable) the starters were a hit. We loved the plating of the mackerel paté as well as the contrasting flavours that the various garnishes provided; and the squid was deep-fried perfection – light and delicious, especially with the very good ketchup.
On to our main courses, and clearly we were in a marine mood: three of the four of us had fish! Only Michelle stuck with meat and chose the roast pigeon leg with tempura cauliflower, crispy pancetta and a red wine jus. The pigeon was good as were the exceptionally crispy pancetta and the cauliflower. What let the dish down was the over-cornstarched jus. It was fine when it arrived but by the end of the meal it had solidified to a near-jelly like state with the flavour of the cornstarch now quite noticeable. Far better were the fishy choices. I opted for pan-fried halibut on crushed potatoes with sun-dried tomatoes and olives, topped with a plump prawn. This was truly one of the nicest fish courses I’ve had since our visit to Catch earlier this year. Despite having its skin removed, the halibut was crisped to perfection and the flavours of the crushed potatoes were a sublime match for the sweet meat. Quite spectacular. Elsewhere, our other companions had pan-fried salmon on braised lettuce with olives; and absolutely gorgeous grilled sole with mushrooms (girolles?) and shaved black truffle. Our side dishes were champ (stodgy and forgettable) and a rocket & parmesan salad (generous and delicious).
As our dining companions had an early flight, by the time dessert rolled around only Michelle and I were left at our table and neither of us was madly hungry by that point… But in the interests of research (!) we manfully soldiered on through a dessert (shared!) and cheese. Michelle chose the vanilla creme brulee (not pictured) which was nice if unremarkable. I am a sucker for a proper cheese trolley and so I jumped at the chance to indulge in the one at Malmaison. Here is what I ended up with: Pouligny Saint Pierre; Gratte Paille; Montgomery cheddar; Muenster; and Blue de Gex, all of which were excellent (although the cheddar was my favourite!). The cheese was served with homemade chutney in a completely covetable little copper pot – and there is nothing that will make a food blogger fall in love faster than a great prop Michelle had a glas of Chateau Loupiac dessert wine, while I settled for a glass of tawny port which worked very well with the cheese.
I have to admit that I did not have huge expectations when I arrived: I had attended a Christmas function at Malmaison previously and that was pretty ho hum (as these things tend to be!). But the dinner we enjoyed certainly surpassed my expectations. Service was knowledgeable and charming throughout, plating was attractive and I liked the small touches like the branded butter. The fish dishes, in particular, were excellent. Prices aren’t bad either – £5-7 for a starter; £15-20 for a main, and all desserts for £5.95. The only think I am not crazy about is the subterranean location – it was a glorious summer evening when we visited and it seemed a shame to waste it underground – but for most of the year, that would not be a consideration, given London’s climate! If you’re looking for a place to take your banker & lawyer friends for lunch, or to impress clients, with good French brasserie food, good service and a slightly decadent air, this is a great City choice. If you are looking for cutting edge cuisine or a view, possibly best to look elsewhere.
Click here for Michelle’s perspective on the evening.
Liked: the fabulous fish dishes
Disliked: a couple of lackluster dishes, the subterranean setting
On a scale of 1 to 10: 7
DISCLOSURE I enjoyed this complimentary meal as a guest of the Malmaison Brasserie.
18-21 Charterhouse Square
Tel. + 44 (0)20 7012 3700
And while you are here… please don’t forget to send me your favourite braai or BBQ recipes by 23 September for Braai the Beloved Country, my annual event celebrating summery outdoor cooking. Click here to read the submission guidelines!